The follow-up to Smith’s smashing debut success (White Teeth, 2000, film rights recently sold to Miramax) is an uneasy mix of Sunset Boulevard, J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, and James McCourt’s fey romantic comedies about dementedly self-absorbed beautiful people.
The arresting, promising prologue describes a day trip to London’s Royal Albert Hall to attend a pro wrestling match, undertaken by 12-year-old Alex-li Tandem (son of a Jewish mother and Chinese father) and two young friends—during which Alex-li meets a younger boy passionately devoted to autograph-collecting, and loses his father, a 30ish surgeon, to a heart attack. Alas, it’s all downhill thereafter, as Smith zooms ahead to focus on her protagonist at age 27; his frustrated romantic relationship with a young woman (Esther), who’s also cardiacally challenged; his search for religious certainty among the arcane minutiae of Jewishness, “Goyishness,” and Zen Buddhism; and his career as a collector, “verifier,” and marketer (and sometime forger) of celebrity autographs. The real love of Alex-li’s insular life is reclusive former screen beauty Kitty Alexander, and the quest for her rare signature takes him to conventions and auctions, misadventures with a host of walk-on weirdos (a trio of rabbis, commenting like a Borscht-Belt Jewish Greek chorus; importunate celeb-hunter Brian Duchamp, and others too numerous—and arbitrarily bizarre—to mention); and a trip to New York City to attend an Autographicana Fair, following which “the most famous whore in the world” assists his discovery of the now-moribund Kitty, living in Norma Desmond–like seclusion, guarded with Cerberus-esque ferocity by her p.r. manager Max Krause. It’s even less appetizing than such summary sounds, because all the characters are brash, opinionated cartoons, and the loose texture is repeatedly stretched to accommodate interpolated jokes, faux parables, lists, diagrams, and whatnot.
Shrill, labored, and boring. Unless this is actually Smith’s first novel, it’s a disappointing step backward.